- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Friday, President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet in Washington, D.C. for the first time. It’s a hotly anticipated meeting — and not just because Trump blamed Merkel for ruining Germany after she bested him to win Time’s 2015 person of the year. People on both sides of the Atlantic will understandably invest this meeting with a lot of meaning, seeing it as a way to take the temperature of the future relationship between the United States and Germany, and with Europe more broadly.
Here are three ways the meeting could go wrong, and two where Trump and Merkel might manage to get it right.
Personality: There has already been much ink spilled on how different Trump and Merkel are. She is notoriously diligent and detail oriented and avoids sycophants and Twitter rants. He is her polar opposite in all that. She doesn’t like surprises. He surprises his own advisers and underlings, if not the rest of the world.
That isn’t necessarily a problem — Merkel had a close working relationship with her opposite twin, Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was president of France. And she’s managed to work, albeit to varying degrees of success, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even after he scared her with his dog back in 2007. Nevertheless, the first thing Germans are looking for, Carnegie Europe’s Cornelius Adebahr told Foreign Policy, is “What will the chemistry be?” And if it isn’t good, that’s the first thing people will see.
Security: In her first phone call with Trump, Merkel reminded him of America’s obligations to accept refugees as a signatory of the Geneva Convention. He, in an interview published in January in the German paper Bild, said, “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals, you know, taking all of the people from wherever they come from … And nobody even knows where they come from. So I think she made a catastrophic mistake, very bad mistake.”
Germany took in roughly one million refugees in 2015, and though that number decreased dramatically in 2016 (in no small part because of policies Germany consciously pursued), it is difficult to see Trump and Merkel’s positions on this point as reconcilable, particularly given how publicly Trump has criticized Merkel’s stance and actions.
Trade and all it implies: Trump’s chief trade advisor, Peter Navarro, accused Germany of currency manipulation (in response to which Germany noted that the European Central Bank, and not Berlin, is responsible for eurozone monetary policy). Germany notched a record trade surplus in 2016, which in Trump’s zero-sum mindset means someone else (like the United States) must be losing.
And while Merkel worked with Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, to lay the groundwork for the ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade deal between the United States and the whole European Union, it seems unlikely that Trump would be open to pursuing such an agreement. He and his advisers rail against multilateral trade deals, and already scuppered the finished Trans Pacific Partnership. Still, hope springs eternal: The White House, senior officials say, has “not yet formulated a final position” on TTIP.
In any event, trade is a tense subject since it is a proxy for globalization, interconnectedness, and international exchange under a rules-based order. Those are all principles Merkel fights to defend; Trump, whose animus to the existing order includes questioning NATO, the U.N., and the WTO, hardly wants to hear any more paeans to globalization.
That’s all quite a lot to overcome. Happily, there are two potential bright spots:
NATO and Russia: “Germany,” writes Jeffrey Rathke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “has placed all of its security eggs in multilateral baskets, and thus it is one of the countries most affected by the United States’ foreign policy moves, especially with regard to NATO.” Trump was apparently “heartened” to hear that Berlin has begun talking about devoting more resources to the annual NATO military budget. Perhaps if Merkel can outline the ways in which Germany, and Europe more broadly, are prepared to step up support for NATO financially, she can convince Trump to step up support for the organization rhetorically. That dovetails with another big question, how to deal with Russia and Putin; Trump is apparently “very interested” to hear the German chancellor’s opinion on the matter.
European values: It is possible, of course, that Merkel will not change Trump’s mind on any of the above. However, she could at least impart some understanding of the values underpinning Germany in particular and the European Union more broadly — values like international rights and law, that Trump repeatedly undermines.
That, says Carnegie’s Adebahr, would make the visit, whatever else happens, something of a hard-won success from the German perspective.
Update, Mar. 13 2017, 1:55 pm ET: This piece was updated to reflect that Merkel is now visiting Friday, not Tuesday, due to snow in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: AURORE BELOT/AFP/Getty Images